As today’s British weather bestowed upon us such an abysmal, bone-chilling winter drizzle and failed to brighten from the dusky half-light of early morning, I thought I would counteract the ensuing melancholy by posting a sunny picture. This one was taken not far from Merzouga in south-eastern Morocco way back in February. Admittedly, it looks far hotter than it actually was in the Sahara at that time of year, but, not far from the Algerian border, traipsing around the near-deserted Erg Chebbi dunes, feet sinking delightfully into the sand, with the bountiful blue sky contrasting fiercely against the earthy red tones of the undulating landscape, there was an appealing delusion of warmth. This is the image I will focus on this December as I battle through the crowds of London: the drunken Christmas party revellers, the jaded winter commuters and the wild-eyed seasonal shoppers, all seemingly set on making each day a little bit more difficult for me than it should be. I will not become riled, I will not curse their complete ignorance of their surroundings, instead I will remember the calm that existed amidst the dunes and try to rise above the melee.
In the North West Highlands of Scotland you will find one of my favourite places, possibly in the entire world. Plockton is an exceptionally picturesque village (population 378), situated on the shores of Loch Carron. Sheltered by the Isle of Skye and skirted by the North Atlantic Current, it has a lovely climate in which cabbage palm trees flourish, providing it with a strangely tropical quirkiness.
I first visited as a child, more than 20 years ago, and this autumn, whilst in Scotland visiting one of my absolutely favourite people, I decided to make a side visit to see how it had changed. The most obvious difference was the lack of Highland cattle. Back in the early 1990s, my overwhelming memory was of the large, horned, shaggy ginger beasts wandering freely and slightly alarmingly through the village. Sadly, for visitors at least, the cattle have now been banished, by the aid of a cattle grid, punished for bumping folk’s cars and trampling their veggie patches. Regardless, the village that once inspired me as Lochdubh, the fictional backdrop for the TV programme Hamish Macbeth, is still incredibly charming and offered the perfect brief sojourn from my holiday in the Highlands.
Riad Reda was lovely, but also situated right next door to the local mosque. At 5 a.m. the muezzin took up the call to prayer as loudly as if a speaker had been positioned directly above my head. As evocative as it was, twenty-five minutes later, when he finally finished, I was keen to resume my slumber.
Thankfully the sight of breakfast swiftly brushed aside any lingering feelings of sleep-deprived grumpiness. We feasted on pastries, pancakes, boiled eggs and pistachio flavoured yoghurts, and washed it all down with fresh orange juice and strong black coffee. At 9 a.m. when our guide Hakima arrived for our day tour of Fes I was once again ready to take on the world.
We started outside the Royal Palace. Apparently there’s one in every town, with the one in Fes covering 80 hectares of walled-off land. Only being able to imagine what regal treasures actually lie inside, we stood out front and just admired its big shiny doors.
Our next stop was a panoramic view of Fes. A remarkable vista. A scene perfect for an annoyingly difficult thousand-piece puzzle: a vast sprawl of higgledy-piggledy buildings in varying shades of white, crammed together in tiny streets. Mohamed handed around his contact details again at this point, in case we should get lost in the endless warren of alleyways; it was not exactly encouraging.
First, though, we stopped at a tile and pottery workshop to admire the hand-made pots and mosaics. The time and effort put into every item – each mirror, table, plate and decorative fountain – was very impressive, but I was less impressed by the prices, as they were all sadly out of my range. Fair enough when you consider the man hours employed to create them.
Finally we hit the medina. Hakima led us in via a tiny backstreet. If you were blessed with a rugby-player’s shoulders you would have struggled to walk down it head on. How do they move furniture into the houses on either side of such a place? We had already seen from our visit to the restaurant the previous evening that the outside of a medina house doesn’t generally reflect the treasures hidden within.
The streets eventually opened up and we had to keep our wits about us, one lingering glance down a side street, one moment spent not paying attention to our brisk guide and we would have lost her, possibly never to be seen again.
The fruit and veg market was first, followed by the fish market and a tiny shop covered in squirming snails, many trying to escape becoming someone’s next meal by slithering up the walls. The meat market wasn’t great for my veggie sensibilities, with grey, spongey cows’ stomachs hung up to, well, to do whatever cows stomachs are hung up to do in a Moroccan marketplace. Everywhere we walked we heard the call of “ballach” as a heavily laden mule or a man pushing a well-stocked trolley would purposefully surge by. The linen and metal markets provided a momentary relief from the bustling food markets and we tried to avoid the puddles and the buckets of chemicals employed in the dying and polishing processes.
We briefly admired the peaceful tiled entranceway to the library before moving on to a tannery. Fes is famous for its leather goods and there are numerous places where you can climb up to view the tanners in action, treating the animal skins and then dying their hides in a series of clay vats above the cityscape. We were each given a handful of mint to sniff as the process can obviously smell a bit ripe. It wasn’t actually that bad and we were rewarded with a great view of the tanning process. Obviously, where there’s industry, there’s also a shop, so on our way back down we were traipsed through a series of floors where we could have bought leather jackets, bags and slippers, in a series of wonderful designs and colours. Being a miserly lot, we weren’t particularly forthcoming with our cash and left empty-handed.
Next came the Madrasah, another area of welcome calm; the combination of mosaic tiling, carved wood and Arabic text decoration was undoubtedly very beautiful. Then Lunch, at Le Patio Bleu: a tapas-style starter – salad maroccaine – followed by cous cous and veggies. Dessert was a selection of fruit, served incredibly dextrously by a man with no fingers.
By 4 p.m., when we arrived back at the hotel, we were thoroughly disorientated and yet very skilled at bartering for things we didn’t really want to buy.
Our evening being our own, my room buddy C and I chose to hunt down the local doughnut seller. That morning from the minibus window we had seen some children snacking on tasty looking pastries and had been coveting them ever since. Once found, we thoroughly enjoyed our surprisingly light, excessively sugary and deliciously cheap makeshift dinner as we strolled back to the palace to enjoy the big brass doors glowing in the evening sunshine.
Having discovered there wasn’t much more to see beyond the palace, we trekked back past our hotel and into the local medina. Beyond the back door of the palace, we found ourselves in a side road, on one side of which was a park and on the other…a bar! Having very quickly calculated that bar must mean alcohol, we were over the road in a flash and enjoying a Casablanca beer as the sun set.
Day three ended very smugly and with a minor detour for a second doughnut.
A quick photo post in honour of the autumn equinox. I took the above on Saturday at one of Britain’s most extraordinary and ancient sites. Forget Stonehenge, the village of Avebury in Wiltshire is home to a far more impressive Neolithic henge monument. Consisting of three stone circles and constructed earlier than 2500 BC, Avebury is unique amongst megalithic monuments and contains the largest stone circle in Europe. As well as attracting myriad tourists every year, it is also a place of great significance for modern day pagans and guess who we would find gathered in the Red Lion Pub in all their celebratory glory, a group of local druids. To be honest I am fairly ignorant of pagans and druids, but any religion that celebrates the environment and which does its best to be in tune with it can’t be too bad. So let us take a leaf out of their book and celebrate the arrival of autumn, this last moment of balance before the days get shorter and the nights inevitably longer.
I knew it wasn’t going to be summer toasty in Morocco in February, but I hadn’t expected to need to sleep in a jumper and my silk sleeping bag liner either. In hindsight, I should have gone the whole hog and cracked open my brand new super-soft goose down North Face sleeping bag for a much better night’s slumber; you live and learn.
I made up for a slightly depressing night’s sleep by consuming as much strong, black Moroccan coffee as I could the next morning over a filling breakfast of bread, chocolate pastries, cheese, and what appeared to be children’s yoghurts, judging by the Sylvester and Tweetie Pie decoration on the pots.
We had a free morning to explore Meknes, once the capital of Morocco under the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), before it was relocated to Marrakech. It was only a 30-minute walk from the hotel to the old town and Meknes’ main attractions.
We wandered through a doorway and into a square, discovering a gate we thought might be Bab Mansour. Named after the man who designed and built it in the time of Moulay Ismail, it is of monumental proportions and could be considered the greatest decorative gate in the whole of Morocco. We took lots of photos. Encountering another carved stone entry way, we drifted in and through a series of tranquil, empty courtyards, before eventually happening upon some shoes tidily placed outside a final doorway. Whilst wondering whether we had happened upon somewhere private that we really shouldn’t be, out came two ladies with their small children. We asked them if we could go in and they said it was, of course, ok. We had accidentally stumbled upon the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. Built originally in the seventeenth century, the ablutions room and burial chamber of the mausoleum were decorated very intricately. The wizened old custodian gentleman inside told us that the slightly incongruous grandfather clock in the tomb was in fact a gift from Louis XIV.
Venturing back the way we had come and avoiding a gentleman dressed as an old-fashioned water carrier and several horse-drawn carriages with tired-looking drapes, we finally found the actual Bab Mansour gate about ten metres down the road from the gateway we had first entered, and across from it the large expanse of Place el-Hedime. How on earth had we missed it the first time?
Having run the gauntlet of the young men touting for customers at the restaurants flanking the square, at the far left of the piazza we discovered the entrance to the market. Here it was bustling, and like in Casablanca no one batted an eyelid at our presence; except that is for a small boy of about four or five who threw a stone at me and giggled, running away with his little pals as fast as his legs could carry him. The fruit and vegetables laid out for sale looked colourful and fresh, far more appealing than those on the supermarket shelves back home. There were live chickens clucking and squawking and boxes of chirruping chicks, sprayed pink and blue.
On the other corner of the square was the souk, a more peaceful area. Each street seemed to provide a more photogenic scene than the last. We succumbed to a sweet pastry at a tiny bakery, counting that as lunch.
Back on the square we scouted out a rooftop café. We sat down for a cooling juice and watched the now busy square come to life. There was a group of young lads trying to sell SIM cards, all swagger in their orange uniform tops. Another man offered horse rides, whilst another tried to coax people into having their photos taken with two unruly monkeys decked out in football shirts: Chelsea and Barcelona I think. I wonder what else would have come out of the woodwork if we had more time to stay and observe.
Before too long it was time to return to the hotel, to catch the bus to Volubilis. The countryside between Meknes and Volubilis was a vibrant green, littered with olive trees and bright marigolds.
Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, developed as a settlement from the third century BC and grew rapidly under Roman rule from the first century AD onwards. It covered about 42 acres, a substantial colonial town on the fringes of the Roman Empire.
Our guide was excellent and it was still early enough in the season for the site to be relatively empty. We explored relatively unhindered for an hour and a half. Inspecting the fabulous array of mosaics that were fortunately preserved under mounds of soil when the earthquake that eventually destroyed most of the buildings struck back in the middle of the eighteenth century. A cheeky reminder that the Romans were far less prudish than most of today’s societies came when the guide took us over to a plinth displaying a giant penis, which he proudly informed us would have pointed the way to the whore house!
Our hotel in Fes, Riad Reda, a stone’s throw from the royal palace, was incredible. Tucked away in the souk, with an unassuming entranceway, the inner courtyard was a riot of earthy tones, with each archway on every level housing a tree. It was paradise, carefully concealed from public view.
Dinner that night was a magical mystery tour. We hopped in the mini bus and headed across to the medina. Mohamed lead us up into the darkened back streets and down a tiny and not terribly salubrious alleyway where he knocked on an extremely unassuming door. Inside was a family restaurant, decorated with a riot of dazzling tile work, with ceilings of carved woodwork that must have taken months to create. We feasted on bread, olives, harissa, carrots, potatoes, rice, beans, lentils, beetroot, aubergine and cauliflower dishes, served in a tapas-like presentation. The others had a parcel of meat and spices in pastry, called a pastille, whilst I had a special veggie version. Dessert was a mixture of fruits. It was lovely. After we had eaten, the lady of the household gave us a tour of the riad, duly proud of her beautiful home and business.
Day two may have started with a chilly night’s sleep and a pot of children’s yoghurt, but it would end with a Moroccan feast and a cosy hotel room with a heat pump.
On Sunday 24 August I was in Southsea enjoying a day trip to the seaside. This summer I’ve been exploring the coastal towns of southern Britain with a dream of buying my first house and gaining a beach bum lifestyle. I’ve marvelled over the insanely fabulous decoration in the dining room of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, gorged on coffee and cake in the stunning café at the end of the pier in Worthing and battled with the current in an attempt to complete the Big Sea Swim in Eastbourne. I was therefore obviously very excited to see what unusual delights Southsea might have to offer me.
The Victorious music festival was underway on Southsea Common that weekend, but I wasn’t inclined to go to a festival solo, so I moved onwards in search of alternative entertainment. Nestled between the area cordoned off for the festival and the amusement arcades on Clarence Pier I was to find it: the Portsmouth International Kite Festival. It was described as ‘one of’ the UK’s premier kite festivals. The mind boggles, where are the others? Celebrating its 23rd anniversary, it promised enormous, wonderful kites and inflatables; superb multi-line, artistic and historic kites.
I didn’t partake of the acrobatic kite-flying displays, frankly the man on the tannoy system managed to make them sound exceptionally dull, but I have to admit the sight of the incredible array of inflatable kites, in all shapes and sizes, decorating the grey sky above the common with a rainbow of colour was pretty impressive, particularly when a giant purple teddy bear nearly took out some passing tourists. However, my favourite was Batman, mainly because he appeared to be trying to escape from a very persistent purple frog.
I arrived in Morocco early for my 15-day Imaginative Traveller ‘Highlights of Morocco’ trip, only by a day, but it was enough time to explore Casablanca, a city that the tour didn’t appear to cover beyond Hassan II, of which more detail in a bit. I was travelling solo and the world seems set to penalise you for that, which is frankly annoying when you consider that the number of people living alone has been rising for decades. The Imaginative (Exodus) way is for solo travellers to share rooms, unless they really wish to be on their own, then they have to pay a supplement. After years of backpacking, I was happy to see what a round of roommate roulette would throw at me; she would arrive with the rest of the group on the verge of midnight. In the meantime, there was only one key for the room, a remarkably chunky thing that looked like it should be used for opening the door to a castle and it doubled as the key to the lights so I would not be able to pop it behind reception and go to sleep. Instead, lost in a particularly good book, I waited up for her.
Those on the group flight were a bit later than midnight in the end, they’d managed to gather up a member of another tour group at the airport. She latched on to the wrong batch of tourists, obviously bamboozled by the similarity between the words Exodus and Explore.
My brief intro to C that night was friendly, and boded well for the rest of the tour. We bonded over our shared bemusement of the lace-trimmed, four-poster beds with domineering oil paintings looming overhead, she set an alarm for breakfast, and we went to sleep. We would reconvene in the morning.
My only previous experience of group travel was several multi-day tours I took around Australia in my mid-twenties. As a result, I imagined a small group of people my own age. I half hoped for a nice single hottie to admire as we journeyed around Morocco. Dream on, my dear. There were 12 of us, ranging in age from 30 to 70, with a heavy emphasis on the latter section of the span. I was, it turned out, a young ‘un. I will admit that, at first, I was a little disappointed, having hoped to meet some new people from my own generation; however, it was not to be and the other members of the group turned out to be lovely, interesting and exceptionally well-travelled.
It was raining as we arrived, but the building was no less spectacular than the previous day. The second-largest religious building in the world after the mosque in Mecca, it can hold 25,000 worshippers inside and a further 80,000 in the courtyard outside. Its minaret reaches 200 metres into the Moroccan sky and houses a laser at its peak that sends out a beam towards Mecca. Although the Moroccan tradition is for non-Muslim’s not to be given access to religious buildings, visitors of all backgrounds and beliefs are allowed to enter on guided tours.
The walls are made of hand-crafted marble, the chandeliers of Venetian Murano glass, the doors of titanium, to protect them from the potentially damaging effects of the sea, the roof is retractable, like Wimbledon’s Centre Court, and twelve million people paid for its construction, which lasted seven years. Having finally opened its doors in 1993, the only thing not working beautifully is the hammam in the basement, which remains unused. It is well worth a tour.
The next stop would be Rabat, and on the way out of Casablanca in the minibus I finally spotted Rick’s Café, just round the corner from the hotel, typical!
Rabat was about an hour’s drive north, and first impressions of the city as we drove in were slightly more favourable than Casablanca. We stopped for lunch in a café, shuffling in to find the Explore group had arrived first. It wasn’t great, overpriced cheese omelette did not strike me as a particularly Moroccan experience. Hopefully the food would improve as the tour progressed.
The ruins of Chellah were our next port of call. Uninhabited since the early twelfth century, the walled ruins now provide a perfect nesting place for a muster of storks. It appeared to be mating season when we arrived, the frisky beggars were making an almighty clacking sound from their perches high up on the minarets and in the trees overlooking the remains of a once prosperous roman city and all of the subsequent societies that have inhabited the spot since that empire’s decline.
From Chellah we moved on to the Mausoleum of Mohammad V. Commissioned by his son Hassan II, it is a perfectly preserved example of the Alaouite dynasty’s architectural style and the final resting place of three significant members of the royal family. It is located in Yacoub Al Mansour Square across from the Hassan Tower. The tower, begun in 1195, was intended to be the largest minaret in the world, but in 1199 Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour died and construction on the tower, and the mosque of which it was a part, stopped. The tower reached about half of its intended 86 m height and only the beginnings of several walls and 200 columns of the mosque were ever constructed.
Our hotel for the night was in Meknes, a further two hours away. The countryside was at first littered with plastic bags, but once outside of the city’s environs, lush, undulating landscape, reminiscent of northern Spain, took over. After a dinner of vegetable cous cous and crème caramel, eaten in a small restaurant decorated with slightly risqué wall art, we said goodbye to a very busy day one.